[I wrote this piece of writing a few months ago to submit to a CBC writing contest. I just learned that I wasn’t even shortlisted for the prize. That’s fine, but I still think it’s worth reading so I’m giving you a shot at it here. If you like it please share it.]
On the ferry on our way to Vancouver. It’s an overcast day and the water is slightly choppy as the ferry glides towards its destination. My wife and I have seats on the starboard side. I sit by the window. Looking forward along the ship down the Salish Sea the sky and sea melt into a continuous light grey with swaths of steely blue. I can’t tell where the horizon is, where the water touches the sky. Gabriola Island is off in a distant westerly mist. We’re passing close to tiny Entrance Island with its lighthouse and scattered red-roofed buildings. The history of its many keepers is replete with impropriety and the occasional drownings. There’s a ten metre sloop under full sail between us and Entrance island. An older woman sitting behind us turns to her husband and asks him: “Is that boat anchored out there?”
Fittingly, I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut Jr. His posthumously published notes and speeches, introduced by his son, Mark, are called Armageddon in Retrospect(2008, Berkeley Books). Anyone who reads Vonnegut’s books, especially Galapagos knows how apt this title is. To Vonnegut the world is funny, tragic, and ridiculous. “Look at this planet…look at us go!” People, their silly, impossible ideas, their botched projects, and their often short and brutish lives are grist for his mill. He lovingly dissects human idiosyncratic frailties, but death, death always has a place of honour in his narrative and so does war, that insane theatre where heroes are supposed to be made and so on.
On this trip, the ship is packed with people but not completely loaded with cars. The high ferry rates are most likely pushing many people to leave their cars at home and walk down the long corridors and up the foot passenger loading ramp at the terminal dragging luggage and sometimes kids behind them.
I couldn’t have a better traveling companion than Kurt Vonnegut Junior, except for my wife of course. He’ll help me come to grips with our collective denial to see the world as it is, our self-righteous ignorance, our misuse of language, our multiple genetic weaknesses, organic diseases, and absurdities like our stupid wars. As Vonnegut says, “We are impossibly conceited animals and actually dumb as heck…Dogs and cats are smarter than we are.”If only people on this boat could see that they are all closet schizophrenics, there would be peace on earth. Too bad, but we’re actually dumb as heck! Now, how many people would actually recognize that in themselves?
In my former career I researched death, wrote and lectured about it, all uplifting stuff. I was not like Kübler-Ross with her focus on dying and good grief. Rather, my interest was all about how we collectively try to deny death using cultural institutions like hospitals. Of course, I feel some affinity toward my fellow passengers. In a sense, we’re all in this together. We’re all dying. Some of us don’t like that idea at all. Actually, we haven’t liked that idea for millennia, so we (humanity, that is) concocted some quite elaborate immortality projects, giving their adherents the delusional sense that they might live forever. Silly them. Of course, we die, and we’re a lot like mushrooms in that way. I realized years ago during a walk in the woods that humans are a lot like mushrooms. Mushrooms emerge from the hyphae of fungi that are concealed in the soil, spend a glorious few days flowering and spreading spores, then shrivel and die almost as quickly as they came into being. People are like that. Generation after generation we emerge from an underlying social structure of selfish genes, fruit into adulthood, spread a few spores if we’re lucky, then fade to slimy black in short order. Clearly, mushrooms, people, death, and Vonnegut go together swimmingly. So, what about my mushroom-like traveling companions? I did say we all die, didn’t I?
Aside from the poor unfortunates who will die suddenly of drug overdoses, car crashes, or suicide, I’m sure most of my fellow travelers will end up on their death beds surprised as hell at what’s happening to them because who knew death is for real? My mother wasn’t surprised when she died last winter. She had no idea what was happening to her. She couldn’t possibly be surprised. Life was nothing to her. Death was nothing to her. She had profound dementia and nurses pumping a steady stream of morphine into her veins. She was ninety-four years old. Fade to black. So it goes.
On this ferry, the old Queen of Cowichan, I’m captive on a floating maelstrom of silly humans, regular humans and exotic humans. There are babies, old codgers like me (one sitting in the seats behind us forlornly packing an oxygen bottle), the inevitable groups of young girls scantily dressed even in this coldish weather their sexuality bursting at the seams. They giggle and jostle each other as they push their way through the annoyed crowd waiting in the cafeteria line. There’s a mama pushing a stroller, and a few young men driven unconsciously by floods of testosterone looking sullen and as menacing as possible. So cute!
What can I say, I’m an inveterate people watcher, and I’ve got a lot to see on this old tub of a ferry. The denizen aboard are my captive subjects, a social scientist’s dream! They are prey to my stealthy researcher’s gaze. At my leisure, I can try to figure out what makes them tick. I make up stories about them. Of course, I’m wrong a lot, but who knows? I’m not an untrained observer. I have hunches about people that are backed by loads of research. Social scientists can predict a lot about people, you know, even if their individual stories elude us in much of their detail. I’m certainly as good as GRIOT™in figuring out what people’s life chances are.
I’m having a hard time not staring at people too much, especially the more exotic ones like the fifty-something woman bleached blond, long stringy hair in leopard patterned tights, wearing red heels and a fur-lined vest over what looks like an ill-fitting red tank top, to match her shoes I expect. I somehow tear myself away from the spectacle and return to my reading. Vonnegut is his usual scathing self, his words are sometimes like little grenades, at other times like machine gun fire blowing the world’s silliness to bits.
A big guy shuffles by us. Well over 182 centimetres tall, slovenly, scruffy beard, thin, scraggly longish hair, battered old jeans, T-shirt with his hairy belly peeking out over his beltless jeans. I know nothing about him except for his appearance and demeanor. He is plugged into huge earphones. With his deeply furrowed brow, he is sadness and angst personified. A few minutes pass, he gets a chocolate bar out of the vending machine across the aisle, and he slowly walks down the starboard side of the ship towards a bank of almost empty seats and sits down at a window seat, fourth from the aisle. He’s almost out of sight. Vonnegut would have a field day with him.
If it’s possible to make any inference about a person’s sense of self based on their appearance and demeanor, I would say that there are quite a few people aboard who are sartorially indifferent. There are exposed butt cracks everywhere. There might be wealthy passengers aboard. Maybe not. One can’t always identify wealth by what it wears. There are a few BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, and such on the car decks below, intermingled with dirty old pickups, beaters, Toyotas and Hondas, but an expensive car is not necessarily an indicator of the owner’s wealth. It could be a commentary on their borrowing power. No, I think most of us on this boat are just plain ol’ working class folk hopelessly in debt. True Canadians.
There are lots of young people on this boat. That’s strange because it’s a week day. Most of them haven’t experienced the alienation of work yet. Too young. Their age and inexperience seem to give them license to be brash and uncouth. So charming! This one kid, maybe fifteen years old, has the crotch of his jeans hanging around his knees forcing him to waddle around the forward lounge of the ship rather than walk upright. One of his buddies has his hoodie so tight around his head I’m sure it’s constricting the blood supply to his brain. Careful you don’t pass out, kid!
There’s the usual contingent of the over sixty-five set on this boat. Lots of couples like us. We old folks get on for free as passengers Monday to Thursday and that does encourage us to get off the island and visit the kids and grandkids on the Mainland from time to time. Lots of grey-haired ladies and gents still read books it seems. Deliberately looking around now I see an older woman sitting by herself, coiffed and dyed hair, prim and properly suited, reading A Handmaid’s Tale. A guy about sixty-five with a long grey-speckled beard and slouching in a seat a couple of benches in front of us is reading The Sisters Brothers. His grey sweatpants are stained front and back with splotches of who knows what. Delightful! At least these two, whatever other qualities they have, show good taste in reading material, but I look around and see quite a few iPads and Kindles, smartphones too. It’s just not true that older people are all computer phobic. Just some of us are.
A woman about thirty, dark hair, slim, dressed in a dark green ill-fitting suit, passes by me pushing a child in a wheelchair. She is moving slowly. There is something up with the child, obviously, but I have no idea what. He strikes me as being around eight years old, but he can’t speak from what I can see although he does make sounds. He looks at me, but I don’t know if he actually sees me or not. His mother, I assume she’s his mother, stops to talk to the guy reading The Sisters Brothers. I overhear some of their conversation, “You had lunch yet?” and it seems as though they are related somehow. Maybe he’s her father. I don’t want to think about any other relationship they might have. I don’t know. I’ guessing they’re related.
Rounding Bowen Island now, the passage has gone by so quickly. We arrive in Horseshoe Bay in fifteen minutes or so. Foot passengers are already milling around on deck 5 waiting for the gate to open to disgorge them onto the ramp down into the terminal and out to the waiting busses and taxis.
I checked my blood pressure before driving down to the ferry terminal this morning. It was fine: 126 over 65. That’s normal for me. So, that’s not the problem. A urologist removed my left kidney in 2002 because I had kidney cell cancer. Now I have high creatinine levels again. Fun and games! We’re headed to see a specialist in Vancouver. Maybe she can figure it out what my problem is. Something isn’t quite right, that’s for sure.
I can’t stop thinking about my mother. The way she died, demented and drugged. Come to think of it, her mother died the same way. For some reason I don’t think I’ll get to die that way, but I can’t rule out drugs being involved. So it goes.
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (1990) Hocus Pocus, New York: Putnam, page 146.
To read about death denial and immortality projects see: Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster.
To know what the reference to GRIOT™ is here you’ll just have to read Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus.